Arlington Shifting Glass Out of Residential Recycling Carts

Published on April 25, 2019

[April 26 note: Two incorrect references to incineration were removed from this release. Sept. 27 note: Three new drop-off locations added.]

Arlington County is asking residents to stop placing glass in their blue recycling carts. A significant drop in the market value of glass recyclables means it is no longer economically or environmentally sustainable for the County to collect them via single-stream recycling.

Given the change, the County is offering tips to reduce the environmental impact of using glass food and beverage containers:

  • Buy fewer products in glass containers and more in recyclable metal or even plastic

  • Reuse glass containers for new storage and other purposes

  • Drop off glass recyclables in new, presorted glass-only containers at the County's two recycling drop-off centers [and three glass-only bin locations added September 2019] for crushing and reuse as construction and landscaping material.

If residents still have glass containers to dispose of, they should place them in their black trash carts for pick-up.

No longer economically or environmentally sustainable

Last fall, the County's Solid Waste Bureau published a brochure detailing the economics of recycling in Arlington. It showed that unsorted glass has fallen to a uniquely negative value on the recycling market, while other recyclables, like aluminum and some mixed plastics, have positive per-ton values. The brochure also noted that glass accounts for almost a quarter of the contents by weight inside blue recycling carts in Arlington.

MORE: The Economics of Recycling Right in Arlington County

The significant drop in value reflects limited processing facilities in the region, no demand overseas and the contaminating nature of frequent breakage in transporting and separating glass from other single-stream items. With markets as they are, recycling centers that receive materials from Arlington and other localities are frequently depositing glass in landfills rather than forwarding them on to recycling facilities.

Maximizing the benefit of our recycling stream

By taking glass out of the single-stream recycling mix, other recyclable materials, like paper, cardboard and metals, will become easier to handle and more attractive to market end users.

"That means we'll be able to increase the overall value of Arlington's recycling stream, making it more financially sustainable for the County to continue collecting recyclables," Solid Waste Bureau Chief Erik Grabowsky explained.

Grabowsky added that the County will save money in processing costs for each ton of glass left out of single-stream residential recycling since it costs less to process than a ton of trash. The County expects to be able to pass the savings along to customers through a decrease in the Household Solid Waste Rate.

MORE: Guidance on the new approach to glass

Arlington's switch comes as a result of a unanimous decision by the County Board at its April 25 meeting. That decision gives the County Manager the authority under County Code to remove specific materials from the County recycling list.

Later this year, Arlington will analyze a cross-section of residential recycling cart contents to determine their average per-ton value. The higher the value, the less the County pays for processing the recycling.

What will happen to discarded glass

Glass recyclables will meet one of two fates depending on what customers decide to do with them.

Glass bottles and jars dropped off at either of two recycling drop-off centers — at Quincy Park and the County Trades Center — will travel to Fairfax County, where they will be crushed and turned into sand and gravel for use in paving, construction and landscaping. The County anticipates establishing additional drop-off locations to make it more convenient for residents, though no specific sites are yet under consideration.

Glass that customers deposit in their black trash carts will be processed at the Covanta Waste-to-Energy facility in Alexandria. The plant, which Covanta manages on behalf of Arlington and the City of Alexandria, can process 975 tons of waste each day, producing 21 megawatts of energy, enough to power some 20,000 homes.

Through the process, the melted glass will be discharged as ash and transported to the Fairfax County Ash Monofil. Covanta is evaluating whether the ash, including glass residue, can be used in paving and other projects. The cost to process trash is a set price based on a contract the County has with the Waste-to- Energy facility and is not affected by market conditions or shifts in recycling.

The County will be notifying residential customers by mail and via detailed informational hangers on their waste collection carts. Check out answers to some Frequently Asked Questions, or contact the County's Department of Environmental Services (DES) with any questions not answered in the FAQs.